Arts and Crafts – Jewelry

The Berbers or Imazighen (‘Free people’; plural of Amazigh) are the original inhabitants of North Africa. They speak a number of related languages and share a common cultural heritage. Most Berbers nowadays live in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The development of the Berber or Amazigh culture has largely taken place in Morocco, as a result of their forming a large part of the population (about 50%). Women play an important role in public Amazigh culture. They nurture their cultural identity by means of a number of art forms, being especially famous for their a cappella singing (Izran) and handicrafts. In particular, handmade rug making, ceramics and silver jewelry. In these women’s visual expression of identity, jewelry play an important role. Men, however, wear very little jewelry, with the exception of rings and, nowadays, watches, that serve a more practical purpose. Magical powers are attributed to jewelry, which enhances its emotional value.

In Berber culture, jewelry has a symbolic and mythical meaning besides their practical and ornamental function, as they are used as charms and talismans to protect against evil spirits and influences. In addition, acquiring jewelry has an economic meaning. An Amazigh woman’s jewelry is her private property. She may buy, and then later sell jewelry to support her family in dire economic times. With the money she might also buy cattle or land. Smart commercial use makes women apt family bankers. Nowadays this use of jewelry has lost most of its importance, with the traditional silver pieces mostly having been replaced by gold ones.

Also, the traditional Amazigh nomadic lifestyle has given way to a sedentary way of life that generates other sources of income. Despite these economic and sociocultural changes traditional jewelry is still valued, and worn on special occasions. A woman wearing a broche, bracelet, necklace, earrings or a silver hand of Fatima (Khamsa, literally: ‘five’) shows her allegiance to tradition and origin.

Berbers traditionally hand down jewelry from mother to daughter. When this proves impossible, for instance when there’s more than one daughter, a new, desired piece is bought before the daughter’s wedding. Women will start collection jewelry from an early age, a habit that will ‘accelerate’ as marriage draws near. Preferably, pieces of jewelry will be tailor-made and in accordance with personal preferences. This means jewelry, when transferred to the next generation, will need to be tailored by a goldsmith. For this reason, antique pieces, dating back to the 19th century, are quite rare.

The most prominent Berber jewelry items are necklaces, bracelets, brooches and large earrings, often supported by a chain passing over the head, and sometimes fitted with pendants at the temples.

Traditional Berber women’s wear is draped and held together with brooches (Tizerzai) and a belt. In Morocco, these pins may be shaped differently depending on the region, viz. round, triangular, and with or without ram’s horns on the sides, a reference to female fertility. These clothing pins aren’t just beautiful, but also practical. They are used to pin down their wraps at the breasts, allowing the free movement of the arms.

A piece of jewelry Amazigh women often wear is a necklace stringed from amber beads, coin pendants and shells. It was believed amber had a protective quality. This type of necklaces used to be worn by the women of the Ida ou Semlal, a Berber people in the western Anti-Atlas. Possibly this necklace had always been a part of the dowry, or else it was acquired later as an expression of the family’s growing wealth. Another piece of jewelry, worn by the women of the Ahl Massa, a tribe from the southwest of Morocco, consisted of red coral beads and a specific number of pendants with a spiral-shaped motive, which represents the eternal. Some chains also display aphorisms in the Berber Tifinagh alphabet.

There are a number of types of bracelets. The Aït Atta, a Berber tribe in Morocco’s southeast, wear star-shaped bracelets which may also be used for self-defense. The women of the Ida ou Semlal will wear not only the usual (Deblij) bracelets, but also hinging models (Tanbelt), adorned with geometrical and floral patterns. It is clear that Amazigh jewelry are a fine example of a unique craftsmanship.

The craft of jewelry is deep-rooted in Moroccan tradition. The skills of Andalusian and Jewish immigrants historically monopolized the workshops of Fes, Marrakech, Tetouan, Essaouira and Tiznit up until as recently as the middle of the 20th century. Moroccan women have all that they could wish for from jewelry using many techniques of casting, engraving, filigree, chasing, and enameling to communicate visual examples of wealth, status, and identity. It is commonly accepted that Moroccan Jews dominated refined, artistic jewelry and metalwork (silver amulets, Hanukah lamps and copper trays). But less known is their leadership in gold and silver embroidery for secular uses (clothing for the Christian and Muslim elite) and for ceremonial uses (Torah mantle and wedding dresses). City jewelry is usually of very slightly grooved gold finely crafted in intricate filigree and often embellished with corals, pearls, garnets, emeralds, and clear rubies. This precious metal has been worked for a long time in Meknes, Rabat, Tangier, Marrakech, and in the north of Tetouan where it was specifically destined to upper middle class.

Silversmithing has been both a major Islamic and Berber art-form for hundreds of years and is mostly worked in the countryside and used in fabrication of matching sets of jewelry, bracelets, earrings, fibulas, belts, arm and foot bangles and necklaces, sometimes embellished with semi-precious stones or studs inlaid with enamels, sometimes with glassware and colored wax, sometimes with geometrical designs or with flower-shaped motifs; of daggers and knives (Tiznit, Tarouddant, Essaouira and the Saharan regions) giving opportunity to the inhabitants – and the less wealthy – to decorate their person thereby demonstrating their relative status and wealth. Glassware and colored wax often replace gemstones and enamel. The dagger (Khandjar) remains the most widespread traditional weapon of which there are two types: one with a straight blade named Sboula and one with the curved blade called Koumiya, a localized variant of the Middle Eastern Jambiya, There are other traditional forms of weapons as well, rifles – Mokahla, with powder magazines, slung over the shoulder, or sabers – Sif, all of which can be custom-made or modified at a goldsmith’s, either with an additional inlay of precious stones or with engraving on copper or silver. Among the most popular jewelry are flamboyant Berber heavy solid silver bracelets with deeply- etched designs and often also embellished with coral and amber beads.